At first, they'd thought it was the Germans advancing in one mad rush, carols or no.
It made perfect sense, once you understood the workings of the finely tuned military mind. It didn't matter if it was Christmas Eve, Easter or bloody Halloween; there was always some mad bastard ready to send the poor sods working under him out to get shot, and they would probably think singing carols was the sort of cunning plan they could substitute for real strategy. And they always did get shot. It didn't matter whether you were German or English, the best way to get yourself killed was to poke your head up and out of the trenches. It would be blown off quicker than a coconut at a fairground stall – considerably quicker considering how those things were usually rigged, and with a lot less milk in the middle.
But there had to be some kind of miracle going on because not only did the Germans not rush towards them, but no-one gave the order to shoot at them. Some might say that God was smiling kindly on them that night and divine intervention was manifest. Edmund suspected that it was more likely that those with the authority to give the order were mostly too drunk at this point on Christmas Eve to get the word "fire!" out. The only thing that was manifest was probably their tendency to fall under the table..
Somewhere out in the scarred earth of No Man's Land someone had produced a football, and there had been a half-hearted sort of attempt to form proper teams before everyone just defaulted to kicking it about. Five a side? Try five hundred a side, with the ball lost in the middle in a muddy mess with everyone kicking wildly at a round muddy lump... oh no, wait, that was Baldrick. Easy mistake to make. Edmund took that as more incentive to keep kicking.
The English were winning, of course – catch them letting the Germans beat them at football! There might have been some misunderstandings about what actually constituted a penalty, or an offside, or indeed a goal, but the English were winning. Everyone on the English side was very clear about that, and no-one on the German side could speak enough English to argue about it.
The excitement of not being sent over to be shot into a bullet-riddled mangled mess had over-ridden Edmund's good sense at first, and for a few moments he'd run around with the rest aiming determined kicks at Baldrick.. and the ball, of course.
Then some officious little twerp had announced that his perfectly good goal was an offside, and Edmund had remembered that he'd spent most of his school-days trying and failing to escape games such as these. Indeed, the one good thing that could be said about the trenches was that, while they did tend to involve a lot of time spent standing around in the wet mud, you at least didn't have to chase after a wet and slippery ball or believe in 'school spirit' as you did so. Those who talked about there not being trenchfoot and gas had obviously never experienced the school changing rooms after Mrs Miggins had served her famous baked bean pies for school dinner.
He'd decided to retreat to the trench, realising that this might be the last time he had in there without the two twits they'd saddled him with until they managed to get themselves shot – although that shouldn't take long. The cockroaches infesting the place seemed to have more brains than they did.
"Deserting, as usual, I see, Blackadder?" It seemed you didn't get any peace around here, even at Christmas. He'd know that annoyingly polite voice anywhere.
"Darling," he greeted coolly. "Just thought I'd see if I had my old school scarf. Get a bit of school spirit going up there." He glared at the man, still feeling the sting of unfairness. It was petty, but then he was a petty officer. "I thought you were umpiring?"
"The General took over," Captain Darling admitted, and Edmund noted with some pleasure that he looked a little hurt by this.
"I see. I expect he liked having a big whistle, did he?" Edmund suggested.
"And shouting at people," Darling said with what was, for him, unusual honesty. "He's making people run laps around the foxholes if they aren't putting in enough effort."
Edmund looked at him disbelievingly for a moment before he turned to squint back at what could, roughly, be described as the field of play or, more accurately, as a sea of mud. Sure enough, a small group were toiling their way around, out of breath and unhappy. "My god," he said, "he could be my old PE teacher. Is that – he's actually making Germans run laps as well? How did he tell them they were supposed to, or did they just decide that running away from him was the only sane option?"
Darling shrugged, the small unhappy movement of a man who too often had to defend both the indefensible and the downright stupid. "He believes in fair play. Unlike some I could name."
"Yes. George believes in fair play," Edmund returned cynically. "That's why, last time I saw him, he was down in the mud being kicked repeatedly in the groin."
The other captain's eyebrows went up. "By the Germans? That's violating the truce."
"Oh, no, no, by our own side. I believe they were attempting to communicate that playing politely or standing aside to let the other fellow pass doesn't result in actually scoring any goals . Of course, they might just feel like kicking him in the groin. It's an urge I often get if I spend too long around him."
The other captain digested this in silence. Edmund eyed him for a moment, then sighed and pulled out a hipflask. Well, it was Christmas after all, and it didn't look as though the other man was going to go away and let him have a drink in peace. "Drink?"
Darling grimaced and stepped away. "No, thanks."
"No?" Edmund queried, surprised. It wasn't as though alcohol were easy to get hold of out here.. for anyone who wasn't regularly eating at the General's table, at least.
"No offence, Blackadder, but the last drink I accepted from you tasted like.." Darling sought for a polite way of putting it for a moment. "As though it had already passed through somebody's kidneys."
"Ah." Perhaps it would be better not to explain the 'why' of that. Some things were unforgivable, even at Christmas. "Got anything better then?"
Darling reached, as though for his own hip flask, and then hesitated.
"Well?" Edmund prompted, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Typical Darling. Happy enough to share someone else's drink – taste of piss notwithstanding – but not his own.
"It's from the General's private supply," Darling admitted, reluctantly, as though confessing a great misdeed.
So Darling did occasionally wrench his nose from his Lord and Master's backside enough to misbehave. Edmund stared, not sure whether to grin at this revelation or be annoyed at the hypocrisy. "And he doesn't notice?"
Darling snorted – who knew he had a snort in him? Edmund was impressed at the nice undertones of 'you idiot' in the sound. "When there are fifty bottles of finest spirits, no-one is checking for a missing glass or two. If he notices, he thinks he just drank more than usual the night before."
Edmund briefly wondered who you had to bribe to get the job of managing the General's wine cellars. "Drink a lot, does he?"
Darling grinned mirthlessly. When selling your soul for a peaceful life, it was always best to remember the price. "Usually just before he decides our fighting tactics for the next day."
"So that's why the orders always involve advancing in wobbly lines. I thought it was meant to be so we could dodge." There was only real response anyone could make to that kind of revelation though, and Edmund gestured to Darling's hip. "Hand it over."
He did so, hesitantly, and Edmund took a long swig, feeling it burn its way pleasantly down his throat with a smoky aftertaste. Strong stuff – if the General was drinking his way through fifty bottles worth, he must be spending most of the war half-drunk.
Actually, that probably went to explain a lot. In fact, it wouldn't be a bad way to spend the war, if you had a choice.
"He's completely insane, you know," he said matter-of-factly. "I might have joined up during the Empire days, but at least that was because I wanted to see the world, get a bit of sunshine. I never tried to convince myself that dying was anybody's idea of a jolly good time."
"That's treasonous talk," Darling pointed out, his lips pursing in that annoying way which always made Edmund long to give him a good punch in the mouth. "You could be shot for that."
"And you could be shot for stealing from the General's alcohol supplies," Edmund pointed out. "Wouldn't make it any less true."
Darling looked about to argue when a loud whistle sounded not far off, and the General's strident bellow reached them.
"You there! I don't care how many tanks you have, you can't use hands on the ball! Now stop talking gobbledegook and give me twenty press-ups – chop, chop!"
"Completely bloody crazy," Edmund said quietly, as though to himself. "Less marbles than a weedy schoolboy who's just been beaten up by the school's biggest marble-thief."
Darling sagged. "He does believe in what he's doing," he muttered, sounding as though he was trying to justify it to himself. "And he's not a coward. That's got to count for something.. doesn't it?"
There were a lot of things Edmund could have said to that. Fifty sarcastic responses lined themselves up on his tongue, all ready and waiting to be spoken. There was something beaten in Darling's eyes though as he looked down at the ground, his breath billowing in the cold December air. Perhaps working with the General, day to day, biting back comment on all the stupid insane decision was almost as bad as being out here? Out here in the rain, and the mud, with the constant risk of death at any minute, and the constant certainty that Baldrick and George would say something stupid every other minute?
Yeah, right. His cynicism wanted him to say 'At least he bloody well believes in something," which was more than he did. What was there to believe in about this War except the certainty of luck running out at sometime, probably a long time after the alcohol. But Darling was supplying the alcohol now at least, and that had to count for something. For a moment Edmund felt a twinge of something unfamiliar that stopped him from pocketing the hipflask automatically. He sighed, pushing the flask back into the other man's hand, and saying the most comforting thing any man could say in this type of situation.
"Here. Have a drink."
Tomorrow, he knew, they would go back to fighting the Germans, and he would return to hating Darling for being an officious little turd, and Darling would continue to report him just as often as he possibly could because maybe it was the only thing he knew to make him feel like he was making a difference. And when you felt as powerless as they did in the face of the war machine, you grasped at any bit of control you could find. His entire military career was based on that fact and to find himself have something in common with Darling, who he despised out of habit, was almost more of a miracle than the spontaneous football match.
But tonight there was peace on earth and very slightly illegal alcohol and a football match that owed more to enthusiasm and hope than skill. One night where everyone had a victory, even if they didn't win the game, because the guns were quiet and everyone lived just a little longer just as long as they stood there together.
Just a little longer.